The kids like to make fun of Nicolas Cage. They put his face on those Internet memes and laugh at his expense, because for as long as they can remember, Nicolas Cage has been in movies like Ghost Rider. He's been in a lot of other movies, too — he needed the money, or so the rumor goes — and very few of those movies have been good.
Everything is different with Joe. Cage is as good as he's been in a long, long while as the titular character, an ex-con who heads up day labor crews, poisoning trees so that lumber companies have an excuse to cut them down. Joe drives a beater truck and listens to grind metal. He smokes cigarettes and drinks cheap whiskey and pays for the company of women. He cuts up animals and gets shot in the arm, then tends to the wound himself. Joe is a badass with a heart of gold and a liver of steel. This is Nicolas Cage's wheelhouse.
Director David Gordon Green, who found success by letting Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch run around in the woods in last year's Prince Avalanche, again uses a rural background as a perfect setting for this dire story, based on a 1991 novel by Larry Brown. The tiny Southern town where Joe alternately raises hell and helps prop up the local economy is dusty and sad, as is Gary (an excellent Tye Sheridan, who you may remember from Mud), a hardscrabble kid stuck with an alcoholic bum of a father. Gary squats in a house with his family, which he tries to support by going to work for Joe, while at the same time trying to keep his dad's boozy paws off his earnings. Joe tries to keep his nose clean, but that's terribly hard for him, and it's his personal battle over whether or not to help Gary that drives the film.
Green's return to dramatic indie films after dabbling in comedy with success (Pineapple Express), failure (Your Highness) and absolute perfection (HBO's Eastbound and Down) has been a treat. The gritty friction he creates between the characters here is masterful. Part of that grit comes from Green's production team's decision to cast an actual homeless alcoholic to play the homeless alcoholic father: Gary Poulter was found living on the streets in Austin, Texas, with almost no acting experience and went on to deliver a powerhouse performance as one of the most despicable characters you'll ever see on screen. Tragically, Poulter was found dead just months after shooting wrapped, having drowned in three feet of water.
But Joe is Cage's movie, no matter how strong the supporting cast is here. He's fully believable as Joe, bringing some of the boozy desperation he gave us way back in Leaving Las Vegas. This is a movie that makes you feel a little guilty for ever making fun of the guy. The kids should really check this out. Maybe they'll stop giving the guy such a hard time. ♦